In the days of the Old West, Yuma was a hub of development. Even when Spanish explorers came through the area in the 1500s, the tribes were well established on the banks of the Colorado River. Then, some 300 years later, 60,000 people moved through the area with the Gold Rush. Eventually, it came to be understood that “All roads led to Yuma,” as was certainly the case when Pearl Hart was sentenced to five years in prison for robbing a stagecoach.
The tale of Pearl Hart is an engaging one, especially when the many missing facts of her life are glossed over and the legends are embraced. The facts state that in 1871, Pearl Taylor was born in Ontario and received a good education. At the age of 16, she met and married a man most often known as Frederick Hart—a man known to be better at drinking than gambling, and one who was in the habit of expressing his frustrations to his wife with physical force.
When attending the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, Pearl witnessed the glory of the West through a performance by Annie Oakley. Then, having been fortified by speakers at the Women’s Fair, Pearl left her husband and caught a train to Trinidad, Colo., where she became a saloon singer.
Discovering soon after that she was pregnant, Pearl returned to Canada and left her son with her family before returning to the West.
Now in Phoenix, Ariz., Pearl reconnected with Hart and gave birth to a daughter. Their troubles were not gone long before it was Hart’s turn to leave, possibly to join the Army. Their young daughter was also sent to Pearl’s family to be raised with her brother, and Pearl took up residence near Globe, Ariz.
In 1899, Pearl received word that her mother was ill and the family was struggling. Desperate for money, she turned to her new friend, Joe Boot, for advice. Together, on May 30, 1899, Pearl and Boot robbed a stagecoach.
It is storied that they made out with $425, and a legend exists in which Pearl took pity on their victims and gave them each $1 so that they could at least have a meal when they reached their destination. Regardless, the fact remains that Pearl and Boot were novice criminals. Believed to be unfamiliar with the hills surrounding their holdup location, Pearl and Boot became lost and, a few days later, were found by a posse and arrested.
(Some accounts contend that Pearl Hart was actually one of two women to ever rob a stagecoach, the other being Jane Kirkham, who routinely made bank near Leadville, Colo. The facts pertaining to this claim, however, are far more elusive than those regarding Pearl, and for the sake of this story, are considered pure myth.)
With immediacy, and perhaps in memory of the great Annie Oakley performance she once witnessed, Pearl took to calling herself the “Bandit Queen.” When combined with her beauty, her dramatic airs made for fantastic media fodder.
At her trial, the all-male jury quickly deemed her innocent. The judge, however, wasn’t interested, and tried her again for stealing the gun off the stagecoach driver. This time, she was sentenced to five years and sent down the road to Yuma. (Joe Boot was also sent to Yuma—his sentence was for 30 years, though he escaped and disappeared from history in 1901.)
Pearl Hart was one of just 29 women who occupied a cell at the Yuma Territorial Prison in its 33-year history. Though referred to as the Country Club on the Colorado by local Yumans for its lush amenities—like baths, electricity, and the largest library in the territory—the prisoner perspective was vastly different.
Located in one of the sunniest places in the world, Yuma’s prison cells were prone to an ungodly heat. And it’s station on the banks of the Colorado, when the Colorado River was yet to be tamed and up to 15 miles wide in places, the prison was surrounded in all directions by river, quicksand, and desert. Yuma Territorial Prison was considered “Impossible to endure, more impossible to escape.”
Pearl, however, faired reasonably well. She was given an unusually large cell that had a yard in which she could entertain writers and photographers who ventured to meet the “Bandit Queen.”
Then, in 1902, she was pardoned by Alexander Brodie, the Territorial Governor. The pardon came with the stipulation that Pearl Hart would leave the territory and never return. With it, came speculation that Pearl was once again with child and a risk to Bodie’s and the prison’s public perceptions.
In 1904, Pearl Hart was operating a Kansas City cigar store when she ran into more legal trouble, but beyond Kansas City, her whereabouts became largely unknown. Some accounts put her in New York, others in San Francisco, and many say she returned to the territory to marry a rancher, whom she lived a peaceful life with into her 80s.
But her story, or what is known of it, remains alive and well in Yuma. Though the prison closed in 1909, it is now Arizona’s most-visited State Historic Park. Daily, visitors can tour the prison cells and the grounds, and learn about other notorious Old West characters whose roads led to Yuma.